I remember the lesson very well. As young potential officers, we had been told to assemble by the statute at 8.00 am sharp. We duly assembled on time, sitting around the base and on the adjacent wall, as they knew we would. Enter the immaculate Colour Sergeant Reece at the allotted hour, and a rollicking was duly administered.
“I said BY the statute, gentlemen, not ON the statue!” he barked. He added in quiet, calm, ice cold tones, up close:
“People like YOU, Sir, get people like ME killed.”
That was thirty years ago but I remember it like yesterday. Her Majesty’s Royal Marines are very good teachers. They have, after all, been turning out excellent fighting men for more than 300 years. The point of that little lesson was twofold. First, attention to detail in an order or a plan. Get it wrong, someone dies. Second, responsibility for the lives of others. People like me get people like him killed.
They are the words that echoed in my head every time I saw a beaming Tony Blair, a grimacing Gordon Brown, and baffled Bob Ainsworth pronouncing on Iraq or Afghanistan. How many of them, I wonder, had ever had the consequences of their actions in these lands brought home to them in such stark terms?
When heard of the intention to invade Afghanistan my first and instinctive reaction was fear. The persistence and cruelty and, yes, courage of the Afghan fighter is, or should be, well known to anyone who can pick up a history book, as is the visceral antithesis of the inhabitants of that region to all alien forces. Falling into enemy hands will result in an unpalatable end. Indeed, shortly after the intervention began, I read of two French Special Forces who had fallen into the hands of the Taliban. They met their death by evisceration.
Shortly after troops had been committed, Simon Jenkins wrote an insightful piece in The Times. He argued that we would be fighting unnecessarily. The stated purpose of the intervention was to disrupt Al-Qaeda bases and support in the south of the country. However, as he pointed out, it was wrong to identify the Taliban – an insular movement – with Al-Qaeda. In fact, he argued, the persons best placed to deal with Al-Qaeda, he argued, were the Taliban themselves. The Taliban were more than capable of doing that, should it become in their interests so to do (and to which I would merely add in quite nasty ways which Amnesty International would find most distasteful). The appropriate course of action was, he argued, a combination of threat, diplomacy and bribery with the Taliban who would do the job for us and maintain some sort of coherent rule and stability.
At the time, I was not completely convinced. It seemed to me that there was a sufficiently close connection between the two groups, and my albeit limited experience of Arab/Asian politics suggested to me that the common allegiance to Islam would probably trump any deal done with the what for the rest of this piece I shall call in crude shorthand “the West,” at least in terms of bringing the offenders to justice. I further considered that the terrible events of 9/11 warranted very robust response. However, even then one could see the force of Mr. Jenkins’ argument.
However, 9 years later on, it is clear there has been a colossal strategy failure in Afghanistan.
I did not go to Staff College, but even I have read Clausewitz. In the early nineteenth century with his own great insight he wrote this: “No one starts a war, or rather, no one in his right mind ought to do so, without being in clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war, and how he intends to achieve it” (emphasis added. Somehow apposite).
Let us then consider the Afghanistan intervention by reference to Clausewitz’s dictum, nine years – yes nine, after this intervention began.
The only legitimate purpose of military intervention both in terms of international law and pragmatism was, and is, based on self-defence and strategic interest: the disruption of Al-Qaeda safe havens, and the unspoken more long term aim of the creation of a stable regime which would keep that area free from elements actively hostile to Western influence, and would deny support for wider militant Islamic factions in neighbouring Pakistan. Everything else was surplus to requirements.
The immediate aim of the disruption of Al-Qaeda bases and training camps was achieved pretty much straight away. One has to say that a deal with the Taliban, long range patrols and air and electronic surveillance would probably have done to the same extent as has been achieved, but there we are.
The much more difficult goal has been to establish a stable and “friendly” regime in the medium to long term. Has this been achieved after nine long years? No. Why not?
As Clausewitz knew, the question of the desired outcome and the means by which that outcome are to be delivered must always be considered together. They are interdependent.
The strategy was like the traditional three legged stool.
The first “leg” of this triumvirate was the creation of strong, legitimate and democratic national government. It has been a tenet of Western political and military strategy that the means by which that end could best be achieved was by establishing Afghanistan (or any other country in which “we” have been intervening) as a prosperous functioning democracy – what one might call the modern theory of Liberal Interventionism. This is in alleged sharp distinction to the American cold war philosophy: “I don’t care if he’s a sonofabitch, as long as he’s our sonofabitch.”
Crudely put, in the philosophy of Liberal Interventionism, democracy and human rights as perceived in the West are regarded as universal values and virtues which are, or would be, accepted by all peoples given the chance. A certain degree of military force is therefore legitimate in freeing the subjects of tyranny and ignorance and the recipients of the West’s enlightened beneficence. First in with the SAS, then in with the ballot box.
The assumption was that this would be attractive to the Afghan population and create the virtuous circle of a shared goal between the West and the Afghan people which would translate into military and political success. Peace, prosperity and liberal democracy established via the jump start of the judicious use of brute force. It is Liberal Interventionists’ wet dream. Who could doubt its inevitable success? Anyone who had half a brain as it happens.
This strategy depends upon the acceptance by the overwhelming majority of the Afghan people – and most specifically the young and not so young men with the Kalashnikovs and rocket propelled grenades – of both the concept of the legitimate state in some measure run according to these Western values, and of a loyalty to that state which overreaches the personal and local.
In Afghanistan, this cannot and will not happen at the moment. Afghanistan is not a country in the sense of a European nation state. There is no central authority which bases itself on the rule of law as recognised here. There have been interludes of stability with a central government in name (under Mohammed Zahir Shay, 1933 – 1973), but whether this was truly a period of stable government or better described as a period in which there was a truce between the powers that be in Kabul and the provinces, is a very debatable.
In any event, more than 30 years of war have swept away the last vestiges of central control. Beyond Kabul there is merely loyalty to the tribe, clan, warlord, drug dealer, cleric or sect or combination of the same which holds sway at any given time or place, or indeed any appropriate combination of these. And these loyalties are very strong. Despite what General Stanley McChrystal may have had to say, there is no genuine sense of Afghan identity above the common theme of the desire to expel the foreigner which temporarily overrides all other disputes.
Save for this one guiding unifying principle, it is, indeed, “Chaos-istan.” As the most recent and discredited Afghan elections show, the concept of a Western democratic system is alien at best and inimical at worst to large sections of Afghan society. This is not necessarily a criticism of the Afghan. The Liberal Interventionist should bear in mind that it is only perhaps over the last century, after about 2,500 years of various degrees of barbarity, war, absolutism, enlightenment and even genocide that a generally settled system of what we call consensual democracy has become the norm in the West. It is a criticism of the failure to consider, understand and come to terms with the culture in which “we” have intervened. The assumption that it is the only legitimate working model for a functioning society is arrogant.
Expecting to transplant western liberal democracy into Afghanistan in a few years is like trying to use a skin graft to fix a burst tyre. Ambitious, even imaginative, but not very practical.
Indeed, this concept of Liberal Interventionism has completely clouded what could, or should, be attempted. For much of the past eight years Tractor Stats have been wheeled from Whitehall on a regular basis about numbers of girls now at school (laudable, I agree), or the number of people voting, as if ISAF was in the business of recreating Islington Council, replete with crèches, equal opportunities committees, and a nice line in lesbian and gay awareness days. The number of dead ISAF troops – especially British troops – as result of attempts to protect voting in elections which were endemically and fundamentally corrupt is the result of the criminal folly of that view. Now that the situation is becoming more costly and more difficult, we are briefed to expect less realistic results upon exit. Nine years down the line.
Marks for this policy: 4/10.
Economic regeneration is the second leg of the stool. Since 2001, the United States alone has spent; according to the figures I can find, more than $38 billion in reconstruction in Afghanistan, although more than half of it has gone on training and equipping Afghan security forces, but whether the money has been spent wisely, or to good effect, is another matter. In simple terms there never was an Afghan economy, save perhaps in the production of opium, (which was in fact in decline under the strict rule of the Taliban – ponder the irony). And in that regard we have been busy offering grants to make farmers give up the lucrative poppy harvest as if we were offering EU subsidies to potato farmers in Lincolnshire (they take the money – they grow the poppies anyway), thus threatening and alienating both the drug and warlords who have real sway, and the farmers, who know which side their bread is buttered on. Infantile, politically correct nonsense.
Marks for this policy: 2/10
Finally, security. There are brave and loyal Afghan fighters – on both “sides”. But the fact is that the overall state of the Afghan security forces is often poor, and in some cases little short of appalling. The Afghan National Police, in particular, are a by word for corruption and bitterly resented by the civilian population in areas where they operate – particularly if there is a clash between the tribal loyalties of the police and the local population, and particularly when they are brought in from the North to the Pashtun dominated areas in the South. The latest line is that we will build up the Afghan forces until they are in a position to deal with the Taliban on their own. David Cameron quotes figures of a further 400,00 new Afghan police and soldiers on the way, but one can reliably expect that these will not be well trained, and there is the real prospect that one is simply arming the insurgency. Once again the problem is also political. It does not matter how large the Afghan defence forces are – what matters is whether they are able to fight an aggressive and brutal and dedicated insurgency independently, effectively, and with the support of the majority of the regional population. But without a legitimate and functioning state to which the army and the population at large owe committed allegiance, the police and army will collapse.
Marks for this policy: 5/10
One is left with these abiding impressions. First, that actually very little thought was given to what would happen after the Taliban had been toppled. Indeed Blair and Bush have “form” for this. Indeed, no sooner had the Taliban apparently been toppled than “we” (I use the word loosely) were off and at it again, blundering around in Iraq, with – you guessed it – no adequate plan for reconstruction of the country. And at the same time, violating more military principles. Never leave a job half done, and never fight a war on two fronts.
The diversion of Iraq then seriously diverted men and resources from the stabilisation of Afghanistan. As former Chief of the Defence Staff General Sir Richard Dannatt admitted last week, this clearly left British forces undermanned when they began to move into the southern part of Afghanistan, with the result that they attracted a violent reaction but without the mass needed to react positively and hold ground. And one notes that British military involvement in Southern Afghanistan really began in 2006, with the deployment of 16 Air Assault Brigade. It was this deployment that was the occasion of former defence secretary John Reid’s complacent announcement that:
“We are in the South to help protect the Afghan people reconstruct their economy. We would be perfectly happy to leave in three years time without having fired a shot”.
And I have just heard the much respected Colonel Tootal saying that when his paratroopers entered Helmand in 2006, they only had a few Afghan soldiers in support. This begs another question. What in dear God’s good name was going on between since 2001 if there were no Afghan troops and nobody seemed to know what was going on in the South. Next to the critical Pakistan border!
Now, there is no doubt the Karsai regime faces the real long term threat of collapse in the face of a resurgent Taliban. Could things have been different if there had been a more concerted effort to establish a larger, stronger, security force at the outset, supported by far more significant numbers of ISAF troops, and in particular by moving much more speedily to establish control in the southern areas, and establishing the momentum of redevelopment which would have created the virtuous circle referred to above? Possibly, but perhaps not for two reasons. Because Afghanistan does not exist as a viable unitary semi-secular state, and because of the Elephant in The Room.
The Elephant in the Room is that the battleground is not contained. It is open ended because of Taliban control of the lawless tribal areas of Pakistan, allowing for respite, re-enforcement and re-supply – and because there can be no solution without taking into account the wider problem of radical groups in Pakistan.
Perhaps ultimately the only way in which stability could be reached in Afghanistan is the way in which it has always been reached. By accommodation with the local warlord, drug cartel or clan. By alliance with the controlling faction on such expedient terms as are necessary. You support AB against XB, provided he keeps his patch clean of trouble for you, and if his business is growing poppies, buy the bloody things off him. If he steps out of line, his rival gets your money and military support and he gets a visit from an Apache helicopter. It’s rough, it’s unpalatable, it’s imperfect and it’s probably the least worst scenario in the medium term. This is a variation on Mr. Jenkins argument.
Perhaps this is wrong. I just heard a former serving soldier being interviewed – a decent man – in his view the training of the Afghan army was coming on apace, and great strides have been made. I hope he is right, but one has to wonder. The fact that there will be an accommodation with some elements of “Taliban” seems now to be openly and realistically admitted by the military and government with a view to withdrawal. In the ghastly speech of the management consultant “expectations are being managed.”
One expects so, and the present recruitment drive is a last minute drive to salvage something. Which means that opportunities have been lost and lives unnecessarily wasted.
No thought to the realism of the goal. No thought to the mechanism by which they would be achieved.
So, Mr Blair, and Mr Bush, Mr Reid and Mr Ainsworth, and you too now Doctor Fox. Just remember. People like YOU have got an awful lot of people like THESE YOUNG MEN AND WOMEN killed.
Gildas the Monk